Cheonwangmun: The Four Heavenly Kings of Korean Temple Gates

n657235703_3842910_1449A pair of two of the more famous Four Heavenly Kings at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. On the left is Gwangmok Cheonwang and on the right is Damun Cheonwang.

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Whenever you enter a larger Korean temple, you’re sure to be met by the ferocious and intimidating stares, with eyes bulging and their teeth gnashing, from four figures inside of a temple gate. So who are these four figures, what are their names, and what exactly are they doing at the temple?

n657235703_3842912_2075The other pairing at Bulguksa Temple. On the left is Jigook Cheonwang, and on the right is Jonjang Cheonwang.


One of the demons that is trampled under foot by the Four Heavenly Kings for not obeying them at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.


And yet another slightly more optimistic demon at Bulguksa Temple that is trampled underfoot. This one seems a bit happier than the first.

The Four Heavenly Kings are Hindu in origin. And in India they are known as Lokapalas. They are said to stand at the four cardinal points on Mt. Sumeru and serve King Sakra, who resides in the Palace of Correct Views at the summit of the mighty mountain, which is the centre of the universe according to ancient Buddhist cosmology. And according to the same ancient Buddhist cosmology, they in fact stand approximately 750 feet tall and live 9 million years. They are said to have helped Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince that became the Historical Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul), to leave his father’s house on the night of his renunciation of all things worldly. The four Heavenly Kings lifted up the horses hooves, as Siddhartha Gautama scaled the palace walls with his horse. These Four Heavenly Kings continued to serve Siddhartha throughout the rest of his earthly life.

The purpose of having these Four Heavenly Kings in the second gate, Cheonwangmun (in Korea), is to protect Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings, as well as embrace the religion, as they vowed to do. Their ferocious looks reflect their duty to force unruly spirits to submit to their will. And for those that are unwilling to submit to their will, they trample opponents of Buddhism under their feet. Also, they are there to focus the minds of temple visitors. So their ferocious expressions encourage people to bow to them, and to rid a visitor’s mind of bad thoughts. If your mind is not peaceful and pure enough to enter into the Land of Buddha, which is the inner sanctuary of the temple grounds, then they might not let you enter.

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One of the most descriptive renderings of Damun Cheonwang, the northern guard with a pagoda in his hand, at Pyochungsa Temple near Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do. 

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Gwangmok Cheonwang, the guardian of the western quarters with dragon and red pearl in hand. Again, this intense statue can be found at Pyochungsa Temple.

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Jonjang Cheonwang, the sword bearing guardian out of the south, from Pyochungsa Temple.

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And finally, the lute playing Heavenly King of the east: Jigook Cheonwang.  All four of these amazing statues can be found at Pyochungsa Temple.

So you now might be wondering if these Four Heavenly Kings have names.  And who exactly is who. Damun Cheonwang (Vaisravana in Sanskrit) guards the North. And he’s the one that holds a pagoda in his hand. He is recognized as the leader of the other three guardians. The pagoda symbolizes a stupa, a reminder of death and spirituality. The base represents the earth, while the dome represents the heavens. The second Heavenly King is Jonjang Cheonwang (or Virudhaka in Sanskrit). He holds a sword in his hand and guards the South. He is said to have the power to multiply his sword so that he can always outnumber his opponents. Jigook Cheonwang (Dhritarashtra in Sanskrit) holds a lute in his hands and protects the East. With the strings of the lute he controls the weather, like wind, thunder, lightning, and hail. The last of the four Heavenly Kings is Gwangmok Cheonwang (Virupaksha in Sanskrit) is the guardian of the West, and he holds a dragon in one hand and a jewel in the other. Unfortunately, the meaning of these symbols has been lost to time.

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These tall and slender Heavenly Kings are from the famous Tongdosa Temple. In this picture is lute playing Jigook Cheonwang.

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In this picture is the sword bearing Jonjang Cheonwang from Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan.

Besides the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate, you can also see these four in the corners of temple halls. Specifically, you can see them in temple murals where a variety of looks can be observed. The reason there are such variations in the Four Heavenly Kings’ looks is that they varied between Goryeo and Joseon style paintings. In fact, even within the history of Korean Buddhism, the objects in which the guardians have held through the Ages have changed as well.  So the next time you see one of these murals, look for the guardians, and see just how different they look from our own present Age.

 The next time you visit a Korean temple and you see these Four Heavenly Kings inside the Cheonwangmun Gate, or painted on a temple mural, make sure you clear your mind of bad thoughts, or else they might not let you travel any further inside the temple that you paid your Won to see.

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The leader of the four, the pagoda holding, Damun Cheonwang from Tongdosa Temple.

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And finally, the dragon clutching and pearl holding, Gwangmok Cheonwang, again, from Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

6 thoughts on “Cheonwangmun: The Four Heavenly Kings of Korean Temple Gates

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